August 17, 2018 8:05:49 AM
Life is hard in the Sun Belt right now; it's especially hard when you have Mississippi State and Alabama on the schedule in your first four games. Welcome to the tough ride ahead for the Ragin' Cajuns.
A Billy Napier offense that thrives on playmakers in space returns its best running back and a crew of wide receivers.
That running back is Trey Ragas, coming back after taking 142 carries for 813 yards (5.73 yards per carry) and nine touchdowns. He had a limited workload relatively speaking, considering he didn't get a carry in the Ole Miss game and got 20 carries combined in the Arkansas State, Georgia Southern and Appalachian State games. In the seven games in which he got more than 10 carries, he averaged 5.3 yards per carry.
At receiver: Ryheem Malone, Keenan Barnes and Ja'Marcus Bradley were the only Cajuns to go for more than 400 yards last season. They combined for 56 percent of UL Lafayette's catches. All of them averaged more than 12 yards per catch. There is a lot to work with in the passing game here.
The man who will be handing it off to Ragas and throwing to all of those weapons is a total mystery.
Injuries made that position a revolving door, so there is no precedent from last season to give any inkling between sophomore Levi Lewis and senior Andre Nunez. Whoever takes those snaps will at least have some experience in front of him as Robert Hunt, Cole Prudhomme and Kevin Dotson return, and the offensive coordinator (Rob Sale) is a longtime offensive line coach with a fantastic track record, so I bet this offensive line will be solid. (Plus former MSU offensive lineman and tight ends coach D.J. Looney is on staff.)
All that sunshine and rainbows on the offensive side can be forgotten: a senior-laden 2017 defense and a key defection leave the Cajuns searching for answers.
That defection came in the secondary when Damar'ren Mitchell, the No. 4 tackler on last year's team, made it known he wanted to leave. That gives the Cajuns just one true returning starter in the secondary, Corey Turner. (Koa Haynes got a handful of starts last season, but far from the full-time reps.) This secondary might be relying heavily on the graduate transfer cornerback from Nevada, Kendall Johnson, to change things for this unit.
The Cajuns can only hope the injury to Travis Crawford last season had a big impact, making his return a big help for this secondary.
It also needs Joe Dillon to change things for the better on the defensive line. He was awesome as a freshman in 2016, putting up 51 tackles, 12.5 for a loss, but he regressed as a sophomore as part of a defense that did the same. If he can return to form and Ole Miss grad transfer Garrald McDowell can make an immediate impact, this unit should be better than what it was last year -- which was one of the worst in the Sun Belt. Sophomore Zi'Yon HIll and a Mississippi Gulf Coast CC product Bennie Higgins will also need to help in that regard.
Linebacker has an obvious starting point in Jacques Boudreaux, the second-best among returning Cajuns in tackles. To complete the linebacking corps, UL Lafayette may have to turn to a Mississippi JUCO product once more, this one being Lorenzo McCaskill from Holmes. It'll most likely be him or Justin Middleton, who had 3.5 tackles for a loss last season in a backup role.
Stevie Artigue was the primary placekicker last season, but he's recovering from knee surgery, handing the duties over to Calvin Linden. Linden took some kickoffs, too, leaving just punting up for grabs. The Cajuns went the JUCO route to get Rhys Burns, so that seems to be the most likely option.
The returning running backs and wide receivers give UL Lafayette plenty of return options, as well, almost all of them having taken some reps last season.
This is starting to sound like last year's team, isn't it? A team with plenty of offensive potential and defensive struggles? It's a team like that -- with injuries on offense -- that got Mark Hudspeth fired. That was ultimately MSU's gain, considering he is now the Bulldogs' tight ends coach.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson